Our Mission Parishes

By Fr. Joseph Schemer

Perhaps every Orthodox priest assigned to a mission has at one time or other dreamed of a book titled “The Establishment and Care of Mission Parishes in Ten Easy Steps.” Yet we know such a manual is wild fantasy. Missionary work in the Orthodox Church has never been easy and cannot be reduced to a dry “how to” book. The vision of the Church in the Gospels and in the Tradition of our Faith is the only absolute. St. Paul’s epistles convey to us a real sense of the diversity of Christian communities he served in Christ. Saints Cyril and Methodius evangelized peoples very different from those for whom St. Herman and St. Innocent labored in the Americas. Our present efforts to establish missions in Canada and the U.S.A. once again remind us of the diversity among God’s children. In a large family, each of the children has a unique personality with individual strengths and weaknesses. In the family of the Church, each parish and mission manifests the fullness of the Church in a somewhat different way.

How Mission Parishes Begin

A few missions have been founded with fairly large numbers of people and considerable resources. As the suburbs grow farther away from city centers, many Orthodox experience a need for parishes closer to their homes. A priest is assigned to these people, services are first held in a neighborhood school, and one “type” of mission comes into being.

In another distant part of the country a few dedicated and seeking souls may have learned something about Orthodoxy and want to embrace its fullness. They petition a diocesan bishop hundreds of miles away for someone to come and teach them and conduct services. So they establish another type of mission; a priest begins to travel great distances to serve them once a month until they are received into the Church and a more permanent parish can be established. Then there are the many Orthodox people in our mobile society who move to distant cities due to job transfers. To their dismay they find no Orthodox parish or at least none that conduct services primarily in their own language. Such transplanted Orthodox have formed the basis of another type of mission parish.

Missions may begin large or quite tiny. The original members may all be converts, or they may have belonged to the Church since infancy. Some missions grow quite rapidly and others remain small in numbers for several years. If we want a greater understanding of mission parishes, we must rid ourselves of any stereotypes. Our missions are probably much more diverse than our established parishes. What can we say that is true for all of them?

Building on the Foundation That is Christ

Unless a mission strives in all ways to build on Christ and on spiritual principles, never losing the vision of Him who creates and sustains all things, that mission will flounder and ultimately fail. Union with God and the love and worship of Him must be the very heartbeat and constant goal of a mission from “day one.”

But sometimes we lose this vision and are tempted to confuse the church buildings with the Church that is Christ and His people. It is difficult for mission members not to be a bit envious or nostalgic when they see other groups’ fine church facilities all around them, or when they think of the beautiful temples they used to worship in before they moved to the mission. When a new mission begins to meet for worship it is seldom blessed with grand or even adequate facilities. Services are held in public school classrooms, Protestant fellowship halls, funeral home parlors, and in one city, a dental laboratory. Certainly the fine appointments associated with Orthodox worship are minimal. In fact a new mission is fortunate to possess the bare essentials needed to hold services, and even these items may be used and worn. This sometimes makes people want to begin a building program or want to purchase property almost immediately. Their enthusiasm is commendable and understandable. Yet a “brick-and-mortar” obsession may creep in and become all-consuming. People can easily be tempted into a situation where building funds, bank accounts and ceaseless “fund-raisers” drain the spiritual life away. The vision becomes distorted. In one mission parish the approach to finances was to place every spare penny in the “building fund.” It finally got to the point where the members decided that no money whatsoever could be released for spending on Orthodox Christian education of adults or children.

Certainly material growth and needs are important, but they must never flourish at the expense of spiritual development. If a mission makes worship, reception of the Sacraments, and growth in knowledge of our Orthodox faith the beacons of its life, then everything needful will come in God’s time. This is not to suggest that having bank accounts and fund-raising are bad. But missions ought to do much soul-searching before doing anything that might lead people away from the Truth. We are warned of this in the Scriptures: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1.) This passage is used in the Church’s rite for the founding of a new temple.

Nor must we forget the witness we make to those outside the Orthodox Church. Some time ago I answered the rectory telephone and a cheerful voice inquired, “Is this the bingo Orthodox Church?” Politely informing the caller that this parish did not hold bingos, I could not help but wonder if sometimes we are known not so much by our faith as by the games we play.

Stewardship in Mission Parishes

To Orthodox Christians in the past, the concept of stewardship was virtually unknown. Somehow the word “stewardship” had a Protestant sound to it, and we Orthodox didn’t do that sort of thing. But in a remarkably short time our Church has made wonderful strides in the understanding and practice of stewardship. Nearly everyone has heard and read about stewardship and knows that somehow it is fundamental to our Orthodox faith and early Church traditions. It is not a “bad word” anymore.

Nowhere is the stewardship of time, talent, and money more needed than in the missions. In a community of fifteen or twenty, if any one person does not bear his or her share of the responsibility, that mission will suffer. The poor participation in church life found everywhere becomes particularly serious in our missions. The burdens of maintaining a mission can be enormous and a handful can’t do it all. Mission members seem especially susceptible to a sort of “ecclesiastical burnout.”

Fledgling missions are inevitably filled with much enthusiasm and energy, but they can only be maintained by spiritual growth and the practice of good stewardship. If these are not present the dedication will soon wane and maybe die altogether. Good prayer life, good preaching by the clergy- man, a good spiritual atmosphere are necessary to remind people why they are installing electrical wiring, mowing the lawn, fixing a leaky roof, or building an iconostas from scratch. Striving to be good stewards of the Lord will make the thirty-mile journey to choir practice each week, and the payment of an unexpected super fuel bill more bearable. People in missions can be extraordinarily generous with their time, talents, and money if they are inwardly and spiritually convinced they are using them for the building up of the Body of Christ.

Some new members may find the means of financial support used for the mission difficult to accept. Perhaps they have only known a dues system in former parishes. Tithing, for the uninitiated, is rather mind-boggling and, when told about it for the first time, a newcomer to a mission may feel a bit intimidated. If a person is accustomed to a dues system, he may not immediately change to a full tithe just because he is told that this is the local norm for giving. But constant education and preaching on stewardship can and does change attitudes. This writer remembers a man once stating that he would never change his thinking about church giving and membership because dues were “part of the Orthodox Church.” Thanks to the stress on stewardship in our national publications and through encouragement by the hierarchy, this man now has become an ardent supporter of the concept of stewardship and tithing. If our people can see the spiritual dimensions of stewardship, they might just begin to try it. At first they may reluctantly dip their feet in the water, but soon they will start giving more of their personal resources and work towards a full tithe. This process will be much slower if the clergy and other parish members condemn other forms of giving as being wrong in all cases. A far greater impact will be made if new people in our missions gradually perceive the joys and riches of good stewardship “in action” in the parish. But other members must be patient, and allow the new members to discover this truth for themselves.

Worship in the Mission Churches

Liturgical worship is so central in Orthodoxy that we want to offer God the best we possibly can. Yet the resources of a new mission parish may not be very great. Some Orthodox from large parishes have been truly jolted when they attended the first service held in a mission. Maybe no one present has ever sung in a choir before or even read in church. The effort, although unquestionably sincere, still produces a result that is painful to ears attuned to beautiful choirs. But, again, patience and perseverance are called for. Once a visiting priest, at the very first Vespers service of a mission parish, tried to comfort the happy but somewhat embarrassed little band of believers after their first faltering attempts. The priest told them that in time they would sound much better and be surprised at the improvement they would make. The members felt Father was just trying to be nice; what good could be expected in the future after all that wailing and all those mistakes? But four years later this choir sings very nicely in four-part harmony, and has a repertoire of music that would make some long-established parishes a bit envious. The group still has a long way to go, but realizes God has indeed blessed them and enabled them to use their talents wisely and well.

The congregation ought to be involved in the worship and singing from the time a mission begins. Without question there are times that almost demand a choir; for example. Holy Week. But a choir should never make others feel excluded. This is extremely important, especially to our converts. They have grown up with participation in the worship of their former church communities. Apparently the encouragement to participate was lacking in some Orthodox parishes in the past. One man in a new mission said, “At last I have found an Orthodox Church where I don’t feel like just a spectator. I’m part of the worship.”

Music in a new mission needs to be simple. In fact, an atmosphere of simplicity and beauty needs to pervade all aspects of worship. Anything that borders on the theatrical or overly-complicated is out of place. Our people do not need to listen passively to beautiful but complex music (if the mission happens to be blessed with extraordinary talent) but to take an active and prayerful part in worship.

Unity with Diversity

Sooner or later, many missions take on a pan-Orthodox character. As they grow, people from many different Orthodox traditions will join them. While this type of mission is accepted and encouraged by almost everyone in theory, problems may arise in practice. Some persons come to a mission having experienced the Church in a rather limited context and in only one jurisdiction. Upon coming to the mission they become quite distressed that things are different from what they are used to. They see variations from the familiar in liturgical practice, the role of parish councils, and accepted means of fund-raising and mission support. They may question the “orthodoxy” of these variations. It has happened in some missions that this becomes a source of conflict between the various ethnic groups that compose the parish.

If possible, such tensions must never be allowed to begin. When “us and them” talk is heard, it must be stopped. Certainly not everything can be done to please everyone at all times. This is particularly true liturgically. But most dioceses in our Church have norms and guidelines. There are diocesan deans to consult if a question arises. The Church’s norms are what the mission should follow, not the whims of a few. We must explain to people insofar as possible why these are the norms. Sometimes a simple explanation will do wonders.

The Church Whole and Entire

Older Orthodox parishes have been accused of being too narrow and not being able to look beyond their own noses. Could it not also be suggested that missions are susceptible to parochialism? Often in missions the sheer effort to survive consumes an extraordinary amount of time. A mission can be caught up so much in its own growth and development that it unconsciously isolates itself from the rest of the Church - i.e., the diocese and national church. It is up to the priest and lay leaders to broaden the vision of the mission. Occasionally people in missions will say that they can’t see why they should have to help “support other churches,” since they are so poor themselves. But if anyone should support the broader Church, it is our missions. People in missions need to be reminded of just how much they owe to people outside their own limited geographical boundaries. In its first days, a mission will likely be very much on the receiving end. There are many long-established parishes that exercise wonderful stewardship. Some take up monthly special collections for designated mission parishes. Others give new or used liturgical items to mission parishes. Such generosity must never be taken for granted by missions and they too should be generous. If a mission is fortunate enough to receive an extra winding sheet or censer, then it should be acutely aware that other missions may need these items. Missions ought to know about the Church in Alaska, Mexico, and Africa. How sad it is when a mission is so myopic that it becomes the spoiled child who always takes but never learns to give.

The concept of “mission” must be preached and lived in missions as well as in established parishes. A small mission may be few in numbers and poor, but something can still be done to help others. To grow beyond isolation, members of missions should attend diocesan assemblies, pilgrimages to our monasteries and seminaries, and other such events.

Pride and Judgment

Since missions have the opportunity to live by good Orthodox Christian principles right from their inception, they also have great responsibilities. Our missions ought to be models of faith and Orthodox Christian living. If they become so, we must thank God for this blessing. But if those in a mission look upon others with arrogance and the wrong kind of pride, then what a sad situation it is! Sometimes such pride shows up in the attitude of a distinct minority (usually quite vocal) that says something like, “We in this mission are the truest Orthodox because we do things the right way. After all, just go to some old parishes back north and you will see the bad iconography¬óand they still do the services partly in a foreign language.” These same critics do not hesitate to accept generous gifts from the parishes they are criticizing.

Recently I heard of a conversation that may be a good response to such misguided attitudes. A young convert visited some old parishes in the Northeast and came back saying, “Those places were not really Orthodox. They did everything wrong.” A wise person, hearing this remark, very quietly said, “Maybe they are not perfect but if it weren’t for the likes of those parishes and the people who struggled to found them, you would not have found an Orthodox church to join.”

There is ample evidence everywhere in Orthodoxy of sin and human weakness. It is true that all who serve in missions and are part of them must avoid the mistakes of other times and places. But to judge our fellow Orthodox brothers and sisters in Christ so harshly is surely a sign of sin. Missions have been around long enough so that it is no secret they too have deficiencies¬óboth in individual members and corporately. We in the missions need to look first in our own hearts and root out what is evil and wrong. We must lead by example and not by condemnation.

No one doubts that there is a need for missionary expansion. Our American and Canadian missions are a beautiful beginning, a God-given opportunity for our Church. Mission work is the very life of our Church if we are to preach the Gospel to all nations. We desperately need dedicated men and women with the vision of the Church to make sacrifices and to plunge into the life of our missions. The missions have many problems; if we neglect them or deny their existence we are foolish people. Without question it is difficult and sometimes painful work. But in Christ it becomes a burden of love and joy.

Fr. Joseph Scheller is pastor of The Dormition of the Holy Virgin Mission in Norfolk/ Tidewater, Virginia, and is active in the Department of Stewardship and Lay Ministries.